“Be channels of mercy” – Pope Francis addresses Dutch pilgrims

It was the high point of a multi-day pilgrimage of some 2,000 Dutch faithful to Rome to conclude the Holy Year of Mercy. Holy Mass at St. Peter’s offered by Cardinal Eijk and other Dutch bishops, together with numerous priests and even almost 85-year-old Cardinal Adrianus Simonis, followed by a visit from Pope Francis, who addressed the pilgrims before shaking hands and greeting a number of pilgrims. Subsequently, the papal words were repeated in Dutch by a priest who had accompanied the Holy Father into St. Peter’s.

Before Pope Francis spoke, Cardinal Eijk addressed him in Italian. The English translation of his words follows below.

“Holy Father, we are here in Rome with more than two thousand pilgrims from the Netherlands. Your proclamation of the Holy Year of Mercy has resounded also in the Netherlands, in our dioceses and in our parishes. There have been celebrations of mercy in many churches, with Vespers and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, during which there was the opportunity for Confession. In this way many, including several young people, discovered or rediscovered the valuable sacrament of penance and reconcilation, an almost forgotten sacrament in the past half century in the Netherlands.

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In addition, many in our dioceses and parishes have dedicated themselves to maniest the works of mercy in various ways, but especially towards immigrants. The Dutch Bishops’ Conference has called upon all Catholics to care for immigrants as volunteers in every possible way, according to their talents and gifts. The Conference has done so at the start of the Holy Year of Mercy through her Christmas letter Hospitable Netherlands. It is reason for great joy that many have answered this call.

Holy Father, the Conference has therefore decided to make an inventory of all the best practices by which our volunteers assist immigrants, so that our parishes and our charitable work groups can learn from each other and be inspired. It is a great joy to me to give you the first copy of the the booklet, also entitled Hospitable Netherlands, which contains aforementioned best practices. Of course this booklet is written in Dutch, but we have considered you a little bit by translating the explanation of the maps of the dioceses and the icons used in this booklet into Italian.

Holy Father, on behalf of all the Dutch pilgrims gathered here I thank you for proclaiming the Holy Year of Mercy and also for receiving us so generously. We promise to also pray for your intenties, especially in these days. Holy Father, A thousand times thank you for everything.”

As the Holy Father approached the dais to speak, he was interrupted by a little boy presenting him with a bunch of yelow tulips. Of course the Pope stepped back and accepted the gift. Children come first.

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The full text of Pope Francis’ words, delivered in Italian, is available in Dutch here, and my translation follows below:

“Dear brothers and sisters,

It is a joy for me to greet you in the Basilica of St. Peter, on the occasion of the “Dutch day” in the Holy Year of Mercy. It is good that you have come together here, in a joint pilgrimage to Rome, with shepherds and faithful from all Dutch dioceses. In this way you express the vitality and community of the Church in the Netherlands and her unity with the Successor of Peter.

The Holy Year invites us to an even closer bond with Jesus Christ, the face of the Father’s mercy. It is impossible to ever fully understand this great mystery of God’s love! It is the source of our salvation: the entire world, every one of us needs mercy. It is this what saves us, gives us life, recreates us into true sons and daughters of God. And this salvific goodness of God can be experienced in a special way in the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. Confession is the place where we receive the gift of God’s forgiveness and mercy. There the transformation of each of us begins, and also the transformation of the life of the Church.

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I therefore encourage you to open your hearts and let yourself be transformed by God’s mercy. In this way you will in turn become implements of mercy. Once embraced by the merciful Father who always grants us His forgiveness, you will be enabled to witness of His love in everyday life. The men and women of today thirst for God, they thirst for His goodness and love. And you too, as “channels” of mercy, can help to quench this thirst. There are so many people you can help to rediscover Christ, the Saviour and Redeemer of mankind! As missionary disciples of Jesus you can “irrigate” society with the proclamation of the Gospel and with your love for your neiggbour, especially for the poorest and those people who have no one left but themselves.

I entrust you all and the entire Church in the Netherlands to the motherly protection of Blessed Mary, Mother of Mercy, and gladly give you my blessing. And please, pray also for me.”

 Photo credit: [1] Ramon Mangold, [2]AFP/Zenit, [3] Bisdom Roermond

Cardinal Eijk’s not too outlandish encyclical suggestion

Despite many a Dutch reaction, Cardinal Wim Eijk’s suggestion that Pope Francis devote an encyclical to the errors of the gender ideology, first reported by CNS here, is not that outlandish.

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On Facebook I came across several people sharing the CNS article: the first, from an American source, came with a number of reactions, all positive. The second, from a Dutch source, had for the most part reactions that were the equivalent of the rolleyes emoticon. bdjkv-myThere’s that old-fashioned out-of-touch cardinal again, enforcing his restrictive morals on the rest of the world, they seemed to say. There may be much to be said about the social reasons for this difference, but it also, perhaps, illustrates how Cardinal Eijk – and the topic he raised – are perceived in the Netherlands as compared to abroad.

But, as I have said, his suggestion to devote an encyclical, an authoritive document on a doctrinal matter, to the question of what gender is and how it has been ideologically hijacked by some does not appear completely out of thin air. Both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have spoken about it on more than one occasion and most recently, Pope Francis described it as a sort of “ideological colonisation” and a threat to the family and children especially.

And that makes sense, as the theory that gender is somehow a social construct clashes on all fronts with the Catholic understanding of human nature. Our gender is a constituent part of who we are as persons, and it is therefore not something that should be tinkered with too easily. The Church does not deny the existence of people who suffer psychologically because they struggle with their own gender, but she looks for reasons and solutions elsewhere, and she will therefore always try to combat an increasing social acceptance of gender theory, as we see happening with things like abortion and euthanasia.

Is Pope Francis likely to issue an encyclical on an issue like this? I don’t believe so. Partly because encyclicals take time to write: Pope Francis will be 80 next month, and he has enough plans and work for the foreseeable future as it is. And he may also think that his comments on the matter have already been clear enough, or they may be answered as the Church continues developing what Amoris laetitia thought.

And while Cardinal Eijk has suggested it might be a good idea, he is not actually actively lobbying the Pope to write a gender encyclical, despite the conclusions that some may have already drawn.

Photo credit: CNS/Francois Gloutnay, Presence

Seven months in, no sign of a new bishop yet

359px-Wapen_bisdom_Groningen-Leeuwarden_svgThere was some hope that October would see the appointment of a new bishop for the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, but as the month progresses, it seems increasingly likely that Bishop Gerard de Korte, who was transferred from Groningen-Leeuwarden to ‘s Hertogenbosch in March, was more accurate when he said that a new bishop would come before the end of the year. And the year still has more than two months to go.

A recent article in the Leeuwarder Courant claims to know where the problem lies: the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Aldo Cavalli, is faced with two contrasting ternae, which he has somehow to merge into one to send on to Rome. The first terna, a list of three names of possible candidates to succeed Bishop de Korte, was compiled by the cathedral chapter and consists, the article has it, of the names of three priests, all from outside the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden. One of these is Fr. Ad van der Helm, former Dean of The Hague and currently parttime professor of Canon Law at the Catholic University of Louvain. The other terna comes from the bishops’ conference, and consists, it is said, of three currently serving auxiliary bishops, of whom Bishop Herman Woorts, auxiliary of Utrecht, has the best chances. He, the article states, is the preferred choice of Cardinal Eijk.

he-nuncio-aldo-cavalliIf the two lists show no overlap it would mean extra work for the Nuncio (pictured at right), who has to create a file on each candidate, add his own opinions and advice and then send it to the Congregation for Bishops. And the appointment of a new bishop would consequently take more time. The article mentioned above, however, chooses to see evidence of infighting among the bishops in it…

Cardinal Eijk, it is suggested, is blocking, or at least strongly opposed to, any of the candidates of the cathedral chapter. That is his right, but there is nothing he can change about it (and I suspect he is well aware of this). As a member of the bishops’ conference, the cardinal has a voice in creating the terna of the conference, but that is about where it all ends. He has no influence on the ultimate choice and can not block it. That choice lies with the Pope, who makes it based on the information provided by the Nuncio and the Congregation for Bishops, who in turn base themselves on their own investigations and the advice of the cathedral chapter and the other bishops of the Netherlands.

Why the cardinal is singled out to explain the choice of the bishops’ conference has probably more to do with his perceived influence than anything else. Cardinal Eijk is no longer the conference president, but just a member. The other members have equal influence in the process, and while some bishops will have similar preferences as the cardinal, others will not.

Besides, if, as the article claims, there are two ternae on the Nuncio’s desk, it is there were the slowdown lies, not with any perceived infighting or disagreements among bishops or cathedral chapter members.

Whoever our new bishop will be, be he a priest from The Hague or an auxiliary bishop from Utrecht, or someone else altogether, his appointment will be the end of a long and careful process in which many people have an advisory capacity. This process sometimes takes longer than expected, and the reason may lie either in the diocese in question, with the bishops’ conference or the Nuncio, or in Rome. Whatever the case may be, the vacancy of Groningen-Leeuwarden is close to becoming the longest in the last decade. Only Utrecht was without an archbishop for longer: 8 months in 2007.

In Canada, Cardinal Eijk shares experience on reality of legalised assisted suicide

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs the Canadian bishops are meeting for their annual plenary, they heard on Monday from Cardinal Wim Eijk. The Archbishop of Utrecht was invited because of his being a medical ethicist and physician, and presented “a reflection on the social and cultural impact of legalized assisted suicide and euthanasia in The Netherlands and beyond”.  Today they heard once again from him, when he spoke about the pastoral response to increasing access to euthanasia, which the Netherlands has a long and sad experience in, and which Canada is facing now. Cardinal Eijk’s invitation came after the Pontifical Academy for Life, of which he is a member, suggested him.

Find a full vid of Cardinal Eijk’s address here, and a summary in this article.

What Willibrord brought – the ecumenism of a procession

willibrordprocessie%202014%2006%20img_9175Every year, the inner city of Utrecht is the site of a procession in honour of the man who first built a church there – Saint Willibrord. Initially begun as an initiative by local faithful after the ancient law forbidding Catholic processions north of the great rivers was silently abrogated, it is now organised by the city parish and has come to represent not just Utrecht, but the entire country of the Netherlands, of which St. Willibrord is the patron. As such, the procession sees the participation of the archbishop of Utrecht, the auxiliary bishops and other clergy, seminarians, as well as representatives of other Christians churches and church communities. For this year’s edition, however, the archbishop, Cardinal Wim Eijk, has sought to limit the ecumenical aspect and no longer allows clergy of other denominations to participate in the procession as official respresentatives of their church or community. They remain welcome to participate, but not in any official capacity. The measure is said to have been taken to strenghen the Catholic identity of the event, and to avoid an undescribed sense of confusion among the faithful.

This has obviously led to much disappointment and misunderstanding. Cardinal Eijk is once again seen as the bishop who wants to smother all signs of ecumenism and Christian cooperation in general, and of course, he is presented as the kind of bishop that Pope Francis is diametrically opposed to.

In general, I can understand the disappointment (not least because the procession was intended to be open to other Christians from its inception), if not the thoughts about what the cardinal does and does not want, or what the Pope thinks of him. But one thing struck me in the comments I have read.

Saint Willibrord, some critics say, came to bring the Christian faith to this country, not just a single denomination, so a procession in his honour must be a general Christian one too. This is nonsense in so far that Willibrord was Catholic. He did not bring a general Christian faith consisting of the generalities that unite the Catholic, Orthodox and the countless Protestant groups, but the faith as it was communicated and understood by the Catholic Church, in unity with the Pope. Of course, in his time there were no Protestants yet. They came later, when men like Luther and Calvin broke away from the Catholic Church. But that means that they also broke away from the faith that St. Willibrord had and brought to the people in what would later become the Netherlands.

St. Willibrord was Catholic, not Protestant and not some sort of ‘generally Christian’. A procession bearing his name and carrying his relics not only honours him, but also his faith which became our faith.

Does this mean the procession can’t have an ecumenical element. Not at all. I think it is good if members of other Christian churches and church communities take part. But we must not make the mistake of thinking that St. Willibrord intended to bring anything other than the Catholic faith. The unspoken assumption in the comment I mentioned above does suggest that mistake. Strengthening the Catholic identity of the procession, underlining the Catholicity of the St. Willibrord and his faith, is a good reminder of what we are called to. But I am not sure if excluding the participation of non-Catholic Christians in any official capacity is the way to do it.

Generational shift as Bishops’ Conference gets new leadership

mgr_van_den_hendeAs expected the Dutch bishop’s conference today elected a new president after Cardinal Eijk announced, earlier this year, that he would not be available for a second term at the head of the conference. His successor is Bishop Hans van den Hende (pictured at left), ordinary of Rotterdam and in the past vicar general under Cardinal Eijk when the latter was bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden. This is the second time that the presidency goes to a bishop of Rotterdam, after Bishop Ad van Luyn’s 3-year term from 2008 to 2011.

liesenThe president is part of the permanent council of the bishops’ conference, together with the vice president and a third member. This council prepares the monthly meetings of the bishops. The vice president was until today Bishop Frans Wiertz of Roermond, but health reasons, which he so openly discussed recently in Lourdes, force him to step back as well. He is succeeded by the bishop of Breda, Jan Liesen (at right). The third member of the permanent council, Haarlem-Amsterdam’s Bishop Jos Punt also steps back, and he is succeeded by the new bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Gerard de Korte.

The new permanent council represents a generational shift: the average age of the members drops from 68 to 56. Bishops Van den Hende and Liesen, aged 52 and 55, are even among the three youngest members of the conference. Bishop de Korte is the only council member who has been a bishop for more than a decade.

Bishop van den Hende is the sixth president of the bishops’ conference since it was established in 1966.  The first three presidents were the archbishops of Utrecht: Cardinals Alfrink (1966-1975), Willebrands (1976-1983) and Simonis (1983-2008). They were followed by Bishop van Luyn (2008-2011) and Cardinal Eijk (2011-2016).

All three are elected for a five-year term.

  • Hans van den Hende is 52, the youngest member of the bishops’ conference, but has been a bishop for almost ten years now. A priest of the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, he was appointed as coadjutor bishop of Breda 2006, succeeded Bishop Muskens as ordinary in 2007. In 2011 he was moved one diocese over and has been the bishop of Rotterdam since then. In the bishops’ conference he holds the portfolio for ecumenism.
  • Jan Liesen, 55, was a priest of the Diocese of Roermond when he was appointed as one of two new auxiliary bishops of ‘s-Hertogenbosch in 2010. Less than a year later he was appointed to succeed Bishop van den Hende in Breda. In the bishops’ conference he holds the portfolio for liturgy and Bible.
  • Gerard de Korte, 61 since yesterday, was a priest of the Archdiocese of Utrecht and auxiliary bishop of that same archdiocese from 20o1 to 2008. In that latter year he was appointed to succeed Wim Eijk as bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden. Earlier this year, he was tapped as the new bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In the bishops’ conference he holds the portfolios for Church and the elderly, Church and society and women and Church.

“Remember your leaders” – In Echternach, Cardinal Eijk on St. Willibrord

Five years ago I wrote about the annual Echternach procession in honour of Saint Willibrord. In this year’s edition, which was held on Tuesday, Cardinal Wim Eijk gave the homily for the opening celebration. As archbishop of Utrecht and metropolitan of the Dutch Church province, he usually attends the procession, as St. Willibrord is the patron saint of the archdiocese, the Netherlands and Luxembourg (where he is buried iin Echternach abbey, which he founded in 698).

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In addition to Cardinal Eijk and Luxembourg’s Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich and his predecessor Archbishop Fernand Franck, other prelates attending included the Apostolic Nuncio to Belgium and Luxembourg, Archbishop Giacinto Berloco; Bishop Frans Wiertz of Roermond and his auxiliary Bishop Everard de Jong; Bishop Felix Genn of Münster with his auxiliary Bishop Wilfred Theising; Bishop Jean-Christophe Lagleize of Metz, Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier and his auxiliary Bishop Jörg Peters; Bishop Theodorus Hoogenboom, auxiliary of Utrecht; Bishop Franz Vorrath, auxiliary bishop emeritus of Essen, as well as the abbots of Clervaux in Luxembourg and Sankt Mathias Trier, Kornelimünster and Himmerod in Germany. In total, there were 9,383 participants in the procession, which started at 9:30 in the morning and ended at 1pm.

Cardinal Eijk’s homily follows below:

DSC05172“Dear brothers and sisters,

“Remember your leaders (that is, the Christian community leaders and pastors) who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith”,  we read in the Letter to the Hebrews (13:7). We do know to which community this letter was addressed. The author is similarly unknown. The background and the aim of the letter are, however, clear: the author is a pastor, who is worried as the faith in the community to whom he writes his letter is decreasing. Other ideas, which are alien to the Gospel, are being increasingly accepted: “Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teaching” (Heb. 13:9). It is not said which teachings these are.

It is notable that the faith in this still young community is already under attack. The Letter to the Hebrews was written between the 70s and 90s of the first century, some forty to sixty years after the resurrection of Jesus, the first Pentecost and the beginning of the proclamation of the Gospel by the Church. When the decline has begun, it goes fast. This instinctively reminds us of the decline of the Dutch Church province in the 1960, which subsequently also became clear in other countries. This decline also took place in only a few years. We are flooded by new concepts and ideas that deny the Christian faith. In hindsight, our situation is comparable with the community to whom the Letter to the Hebrews was written. The advice to remember our leaders who first spoke the word of God to us, also goes for us.

Let us follow this advice. Saint Willibrord, who is called the Aposte of the Netherlands and who established Echternach Abbey, is one of the most important leaders who first proclaimed the Christian faith to us. What do we know about him? What characterised him and what drove him? How can he inspire us today? Willibrord was born in 658 in Northumberland (in the north of England). In his twenties he entered Rathmelsighi monastery in Dublin (Ireland) to prepare for a mission in the Netherlands. For twelve years he received a thorough education there. He got to know the spirituality of the Hiberno-Scottish monks. In 690 he came to the Netherlands with his companions. A year later he received from Pope Sergius I the mission to proclaim the Gospel among the Frisians. Willibrord expressly wanted to perform his mission in union with Rome and be a part of the entire world Church. During his second visit to Rome in 685 the Pope ordained him as archbishop of the Frisians and he received the pallium.

When we really want to know the spirit of Saint Willibrord and his motives, we must know a few things about the aforementioned Hiberno-Scottish monks. These did not strive for a systematic evangelisation and did not in the first place think of the creation of great structures and the establishment of dioceses. Their motive, to proclaim the faith, had in the first place to do with their focus on their own sanctification. They fostered an ascetical-mystical ideal: Like Christ during His earthly life and like His Apostles, they wanted to have no place to rest their heads (Matt. 8:20), and like them possess nothing and endure the suffering that would be theirs through rejection, misunderstanding, resistance and violence. They wanted to be what is called in Latin peregrini, meaning strangers or pilgrims, like Jesus and the Apostles themselves. It was their ideal to spread the good news like Jesus and the Apostles, as strangers without a permanent residence, following His call: “And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life” (Matt. 19:29).

Willibrord and his companions wanted to heed this call and left their homeland with its already well-developed and widespread Christian structures, to proclaim Christ and His Gospel as peregrini among us on the European mainland. Willibrord experienced what it is to go with Jesus without being able to rely on established structures. He and his companions had the same experiences as Jesus during His earthly life. They too encountered misunderstanding and persecution. They found what it means that no slave is above his master (Matt. 10:24).

Of course, Willibrord also tried to rely on structures: he saught the protection of the Frankish royal house and established monasteries to support the mission. But in the beginning there were no structures at all. And what structures he established were frequently destroyed again, for example during a rebellion of the Frisians under their King Radbod. This also provides one of the explanations for the way in which the spring procession was held until 1947: with three steps forward and two back. This reflects the evangelisation, which in general was very fruitful, but not without times of serious setbacks.

As Willibrord and his companions could, at the start of their mission, not rely on permanent Christian structures, and as the structures they built were frequently destroyed again, their Hiberno-Scottish spirituality was not just their motivation, but also the most important means of their evangelisation. The direct imitation of Christ in their way of living gave them a strong personal charisma as disciples of Jesus. This was well-received: soon they were joined by missionaries from the areas they had evangelised, aglow with the same fire – like Saint Liudger, founder of the Diocese of Münster, born in Zuilen, a village near Utrecht and today a subburb of that city.

Can we not see a comparison here with what later happened multiple times in the Church? During the French Revolution and the the time after it, for example, the Church in western Europe lost many of her structures and took several steps backwards. But over the course of the nineteenth century the Church took many steps forward again.

Sadly we have to conclude that the Church has once again taken quite a few step back in the past fifty years. In the 1950s the communication of faith happened almost automatically, carried by our strong parishes, Catholic schools and other structures which played an important role in the past. Now even more than in the past, the advice is true: remember your leaders, who first spoke the word of God to you. Willibrord and his companions are an example for us because of their determination, based on the spirituality of the Hiberno-Scottish monks, to be on the road with Jesus, even without great structures, even in the face of opposition. That enabled them to withstand misunderstanding, criticism, opposition and setbacks and gave them the charisma of the disciples of Jesus during his earthly life. This was precisely what made their evangelisation – despite the frequently necessary steps back – very fruitful.

We have now taken steps backwards and can rely on ever fewer structures. We can’t literally follow Saint Willibrord, but we can be inspired by his spirituality. It not only shows us the way towards our own sanctification, but at the same time teaches us how we can proclaim the faith without structures of any kind. His spirituality, directed towards the development of a convincing personal charisma as disciples of Jesus, is, perhaps more than we realise, groundbreaking for the new evangelisation of western Europa. I am not a prophet, but we can anticipate that our current secular culture is not for ever and will at some point in the future be replaced by another culture. And who knows, perhaps then, in regard to our Christian structures, we can take a few steps forwards again. Amen.”

Photo gallery available here.